An epidemic is ravaging college campuses and it’s not COVID. But in the long run, it may prove more deadly to the academic enterprise because it fuels uncritical thinking and leaves damaged reputations in its wake. The variants to worry about are: “Hear-Me-Roar-ism,” “Out-of-Context-ism,” and the epidemic’s omicron, “Damn-the-Consequences-ism.” My exposure to all three variants was brief but the symptoms may be long-lasting. Is there any protection against the spread of the disease? The appearance of a ’60s pop icon in my class forced me to formulate some basic countermeasures. It is my hope that these precautions might help us all flatten the curve of rising intolerance and bad judgement.
For background, all one needs to know is that I teach advanced students and research fellows at a leading university how to use radioactive tracers and PET imaging to study the action of drugs in the brain. Hardly the stuff of political controversy. But there are two ways to teach anything. The safe, boring, and unmemorable way. Or the amusing, personalized, and engaging way. I choose the latter. Unfortunately, those of us who unmask our personalities and senses of humor in the service of educational engagement put ourselves at risk.
My task at the start of the semester is to prepare the students to describe precisely and quantitatively the odyssey of a molecule traveling through the body to rendezvous with a target site. The secret sauce is mathematical modeling. But this can be a bit of a shock to non-mathematicians in the class. So I work up to it. I always begin my first lecture with, “Imagine yourself a molecule poised to travel through a patient’s bloodstream. What will you encounter? Let’s go on a fantastic voyage together!” Enter Raquel Welch. As any serious student of American pop culture knows, Raquel Welch starred in the SciFi flick Fantastic Voyage in 1966. Cue the poster for the movie. The premise is that a world leader is dying from an inoperable blood clot and can be saved only by placing a crew of expert clot-busting scientists into a spaceship, shrinking it down to the size of a blood cell, and injecting it into the patient. Alas, the movie is not as memorable for its acting as it is for Raquel Welch in her tight-fitting space suit. To quote John Lennon, “You could say she was attractively built. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”
Confronted by a space suit–clad Raquel Welch, her fellow miniaturized scientists aiming a laser-beam at a menacing leukocyte, and their instructor’s self-effacing and — squarely G-rated — humor recalling his childhood fascination with Ms. Welch, some students chose to drop the class. I guess they must not have cared that much about imaging or drugs. So what? So, then came a sudden outbreak of “Hear-Me-Roar-ism.” Some of the departing students marched straight to their department chair’s office and complained about my references to Raquel in the classroom. I don’t know their exact line of reasoning. Did they object to my highlighting a Hispanic woman (née Tejada) in a rare (for the ’60s) portrayal of a female scientist that paved the way for Star Trek? It does not matter. Having arrived at our university with what I suspect was a low-grade case of “Hear-Me-Roar-ism,” the students then failed to take proper precautions and had apparently caught a second variant of the disease, “Out-of-Context-ism,” by community transmission.
Until that point in my career, I had taught happily and in comfortable obscurity. No chairman had ever ventured into my classroom and none had reason to have an opinion about me. Students enrolled in my class for more than 10 years. Every year I introduced them to Raquel Welch’s filmography and there were no untoward side-effects other than an enhanced appreciation of PET imaging, mathematical modeling, and B-movies. But now, things had changed. At least one powerful person’s opinion of me had been altered for the worse. My reputation had been sullied by those students least qualified to render an opinion — those insufficiently motivated to take the class but sufficiently motivated to complain about it. How could they possibly have an informed opinion of my abilities as an educator?
I teach “Imaging Drugs in the Brain” with two of my colleagues. After my denunciation, my co-instructors admitted that they were worried what they should or shouldn’t say in class. Which pop references might get them denounced too? Collectively, we are just plain tired and deflated by the gotcha environment that is enabled by activist administrators and ineffectual academic leaders. After more than a decade honing our efforts, poring over the students’ evaluations every summer, adding new and creative elements to the class that win us consistent kudos, we are disinclined to continue teaching. “Damn-the-Consequences-ism” in full relief.
What is the origin of the problem and what can be done about it? The seeds of the disease are probably sown long before students enter a university. Critical thinking is not on the public-school agenda, whereas it ought to be given equal billing with other priorities like STEM education and social justice activism. Critical thinking demands a willingness to absorb sufficient information before jumping to conclusions. Jumping to conclusions makes taking offense more likely. Being easily and perpetually offended is not a worthy career goal. If taking offense cannot be totally eradicated from one’s personality, at least it shouldn’t be worn on one’s sleeve and definitely not weaponized. Lastly, students at all levels should consider tempering their sensitivities enough to give due deference to the elders in the room who earned their positions through years of study and hard work.
At the same time, we must all keep things in perspective. As my two (female) co-instructors reminded me, although three or four “Rebels Without a Cause” may have complained, more than 30 persevered, enjoyed, and learned together. They enjoyed our teaching style and reported on their evaluation forms (median score: “5/5, emphatic yes”) that the class was fun and engaging and the environment was conducive to learning. One important lesson is that the majority must become more vocal in their approval of unconventional and entertaining teaching styles to counter the too-easily-offended minority whose negative opinions have inordinately long echoes.
To slow the spread of the epidemic on campus, I respectfully propose, “The Raquel Welch Rapid Test.” Before taking to the barricades of the cancel-culture wars, each of us must ask ourselves these quick questions: Is it possible that another person’s way of expressing himself, albeit foreign or weird, is not actually offensive, but simply different from yours because he comes from a different place or time? Are his actions or sense of humor well-meaning, and possibly even instructive? If so, let it go. Or better yet, embrace the person in all his peculiarities. It’s time for students and faculty to go on a new voyage together (tight-fitting space-suits, optional) with a new mission — to save free speech culture. On this voyage our differences — even our quirkiest, frozen-in-time, pre-adolescent crush ones — will be celebrated rather than taken out of context, cause for offense, or used to cause harm. It’ll be fantastic!